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On the eve of training camp in late July, the U.S. Olympic basketball team gathered in the Carmichael Room of the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. Once Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski delivered messages about beginning the final leg of this journey to Beijing, Team USA's managing director and coach turned the meeting over to the players.
Across the room, everyone had a chance to speak. Jason Kidd. LeBron James. Kobe Bryant had the final word. As Colangelo remembered it, the best player on the planet told his teammates, "We all complain on our teams, that I want to play with this player or that one. Well, here we've got them all. This is how it's supposed to be. We don't have any excuses."
"Amen," Krzyzewski said, and so ended the meeting that started the final preparations for an Olympic team that tries to undo years of international tournament failures and embarrassments.
A few days later, over breakfast, Colangelo fiddled with the melon slices on his plate, his eyes growing glassy over the memory. Nearby, Krzyzewski was chatting with his coaching staff. Colangelo's international scout, Tony Ronzone, had flown all night from the Olympic qualifying tournament in Greece and stopped by the table to plan a meeting later in the day. Soon, James and Dwyane Wade would walk through the door for a breakfast buffet. All here, all on Colangelo's watch now.
And the longer the man most responsible for bringing back a gold medal to American basketball talked this morning, the more nostalgic, the more emotional, the prospects made him. Make no mistake: Bryant spoke for everyone. There are no excuses now. They have it all. Everything Colangelo wanted to bring the USA basketball program into modern times has been afforded him. His players, his coach, his system. No one knew who to blame in 2004. Tantrum-throwing coach Larry Brown? The stars who bailed on the Athens Games? The B- and C-list NBA players who did go?
Now, everything turns to Colangelo, the 68-year-old retired Phoenix Suns owner and executive who had been the most connected, most influential man in the sport. NBA commissioner David Stern had one man in mind to turn around USA Basketball: Colangelo.
Three-and-a-half years ago, Stern offered Colangelo the job as managing director of USA Basketball. Colangelo wanted three things: He wanted the U.S. to model its program after those in Spain and Argentina where the U.S. would have a true national team, with core players together for years and young players rising through the ranks. He wanted complete autonomy to pick the coach and the players. No more committees, no more politics. And money. Colangelo didn't want to be bothered with budgets.
"David didn't like that one," Colangelo confessed.
Yet, Stern agreed. He had no choice. The U.S.'s repeated failures in the world championships and Olympics was hurting the NBA's standing near and far. The public couldn't see past the players on the floor to understand that without proper preparation time, without continuity with America's best players, there was no beating the Argentinas and Spains and Greeces. The program was a mess, its pitiful standing post-Athens bronze medal in the States was only matched by the disdain the international basketball community had come to hold for the United States.
"A big part of the early conversation for us was how disrespectful it appeared we had been," Colangelo said. "When you (asked) people around the world, 'What do you think of USA Basketball?' and the things that came out of their mouth were 'no humility' and 'very arrogant' and 'just don't respect anybody.' Both on and off the court.
"Well, if you're an American and you're a basketball guy, you want to change it."
After Colangelo took the job without a salary in November 2005, he traveled the country for personal meetings with the best players in the sport. Outside of past Olympians Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, Colangelo recruited every player that he truly wanted on the roster. Four years ago, James, Wade and Carmelo Anthony were immature teeny-boppers. James and Anthony had developed a horrible reputation for partying, dissing USA Basketball staff and acting like the ugliest of Americans. Of course, none behaved worse than Brown.
So much a part of the growth of this core was Colangelo bringing Bryant and Kidd to the team a year ago because, as one NBA elder said, "the younger guys didn't have to pretend to be something they couldn't yet as leaders." Colangelo and Krzyzewski were constantly bringing war veterans and inspirational speakers to educate on wearing the red, white and blue, indoctrinate into minds a mission bigger than that of Nike's imperialistic designs.
"Having the players in this kid of a circumstance now is so different, because we can control the environment," Colangelo said. "Players with respective franchises are in control. Here, they know they have to do it our way. The leverage is reversed to some degree, in a positive way."
The loss to Greece in the 2006 World Championships in Japan thrust a bigger light on Krzyzewski's ability to make the adjustments needed under the duress of international basketball. College coaches are tested so many fewer nights a year than their pro counterparts; they exist in an X-and-O world that is far inferior to that of the NBA and international basketball. Colangelo chose Krzyzewski over San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and, until Duke's coach navigates Team USA to a gold medal, there will be doubt over that choice.
Nevertheless, Krzyzewski has done a good job creating a selfless culture within the roster, but ultimately that'll be tested when times get tough in Beijing. After the FIBA championships in Las Vegas a summer ago, Colangelo marveled over the way that his players had such a hard time saying goodbye at a hotel going-away party. No one wanted to return to flawed teams in the NBA. "Guys were all hugging each other, saying things like, 'I wish I didn't have to go back. … I wish we could just stay together.' … For me, that was just an ultimate moment."
The ultimate moment still awaits. The tears were welling in his eyes again, because this gets to Jerry Colangelo every time now. His coaches, his players, his call. All here. All his. Kobe Bryant was right. Everyone has what they wanted on Team USA. No more excuses.